Sunday, June 24, 2012
A Loveburst: Ben Harper
I have a muscial best buddy and his name is Ben Harper. Considering all the fans he's gained in the past two decades, I'm sure I share him as a musical best friend with many, many others. I'm willing to accept that, but I still believe that nobody loves Ben quite like I do. I've been listening to and loving music for my entire life and I'm always building on and shaping my musical knowledge and preferences. I pay close attention to what I like about a certain artist or band, because the more I know about my musical tastes, the easier I'll be able to keep finding awesome tunes.
When it comes to deciding my commitment to a musician or group, there are two very important factors: First, I have to truly feel like they'd be making music whether or not they make money for it, and whether or not anyone else is listening. The bands and artists that rank highest in my favourites all have one thing is common, they feel genuine. I cannot stand shallow music. I don't mind fun, light-hearted, party music, but I still have to feel like it's coming from honest intent, not just the will to be famous and get paid. Second, there has to be range within a musician's song catalogue. When I'm collecting music for my itunes and choosing which artists go on my daily ipod playlist, I always take my varying moods into consideration. If a band only offers up one style or vibe, chances are I will not dig them as much as a musician who has a song for every and any way that I'm feeling. Of course, the third factor is pure talent, which is much harder to describe, I know it when I hear it.
Having range, being genuine, and possessing raw talent are three attributes that describe Ben Harper, which makes it easy for me to be a proud fan and listen to his music every day. I was introduced to Ben's music over ten years ago, with the same song that most casual fans know him for, 'Steal My Kisses'. This is a bit backwards, considering who discovered who, but I actually found Ben Harper through learning about Jack Johnson. At the time that I made myself a mix of Johnson and Harper, I actually preferred Jack's music over Ben's. This is no longer the case, I haven't willingly listened to a Jack Johnson song in years. I haven't nothing against him in particular, there's just something about his music that doesn't have the staying power that Harper's does. After going back and catching up with Ben's albums, Both Sides of the Gun came out in 2006, his first new album since I became a fan. He did not disappoint. Both Sides is a double-disc, with one side containing slow, soft, melancholy songs, and the other side featuring more upbeat, rock and roll, protest-style music. Currently, this album is still one of my favourites, as you can see from how many songs off of Both Sides I included in my 'Ben Harper-isms' post.
Unfortunately, as well-loved by his fan base as he may be, Ben Harper is not a common celebrity name. He has a few recognizable songs for the casual fan, like 'Brown Eyed Blues' and 'Burn One Down', but most of the time I find myself having to explain to people who the man is and what he's known for. This has always been confusing to me, because on top of raw musical talent, Ben sends a positive message in his music, I'm surprised he's not more popular as a pop culture role model. Over the years he's evolved from a protest-rocker to an alternative-rocker to a soul-singer to a funky jam-rocker, but the positive messages in his music have remained the same, no matter which genre he chooses. Which brings me to his range. On a typical Ben Harper album, you can expect to hear pop rock, rock and roll, hard rock, reggae, r&b/soul, acoustic, ballads, and of course, good old blues. So chances are, no matter what style of music you prefer, Ben has a song that'll appeal to you.
Another admirable quality that Ben possesses is his working-man's approach to musical creation. He is a musician that likes to keep busy, and he seems to enjoy working with a wide range of bands and other musicians. Other than releasing albums as plain old Ben Harper, he's also released albums with The Innocent Criminals, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Fistful of Mercy, and Relentless 7. The boys in R7 are currently touring as Ben's back-up band for his solo stuff, and personally they are my favourite musicians to see and hear play with Ben. Also, Ben's own music taste shines through in the range of covers that he's recorded and performed. While hearing Ben sing his own songs is magical enough in itself, hearing him sing classic tracks such as: 'Ain't too Proud to Beg' (The Temptations), 'Breakdown' (Tom Petty) 'Could You be Loved' (Bob Marley), 'Dazed and Confused' (Led Zeppelin), 'Gimme Shelter' (Rolling Stones), 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine' (Marvin Gaye), and 'Strawberry Fields Forever' (The Beatles) is always a treat.
I've had the pleasure of seeing Ben Harper play live four times, each at a different venue. The first time I saw him, he was touring with Relentless 7 for the album White Lies for Dark Times. The concert was a part of a festival being held at the amazing Gorge Ampitheatre in George, Washington, USA. This was the third (and most recent) time that I've been to the Gorge, the first two were to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Even from what felt like a million miles away from the stage, I loved watching Ben and his band-mates perform. Hearing 'Serve Your Soul' bounce around in the wind during the encore was a special concert moment for me. The second time I saw Ben and R7 perform was at Deer Lake Park in Burnaby, B.C. This is another outdoor venue, but this time I was much closer to the stage. Ben and his band were much more comfortable playing together than the first time I had seen them, and this was a very fun show to experience. The third time, Ben and R7 opening for Pearl Jam at G.M. Place in Vancouver, B.C., is probably my least favourite time. Since they were the openers, the setlist was cut short and they had to mostly stick to the popular songs that the huge audience would generally recognize. Still a great show, but I felt a little too disconnected.
Finally, my most recent Ben Harper show was at Malkin Bowl in Stanley Park, in Vancouver. This show was part of Ben's Give Till it's Gone solo tour, but he hung on to his bandmates from R7 for the tour. This show was the most intimate of the times I've seen him. Not only were we about ten feet from the stage, but Ben was much more open and personable this time around, in past performances he just said his 'thank-you's and stuck to playing the music. At the Malkin Bowl, Ben was joking around, telling stories, encouraging tons of crowd participation, and genuinely enjoying himself more than I have ever seen. This performance also featured a 15-minute long version of 'Lay There and Hate Me', which included a drum solo, followed by a bass solo, followed by a hilarious monologue by Ben about the criticism he gets for his 'never trust a woman who loves the blues' line. Some musicians I've seen just play their songs, say their 'fuck you's or 'thank you's (depending on the type of band), and leave. Ben makes you feel like he wouldn't rather be anywhere else than on stage entertaining his fans.
For people who are already Ben Harper fans, this post may seem redundant, 'tell me something I don't know', and 'yeah, I love Ben too'. Let's just celebrate his music and leave it at that. For those who aren't aware of Ben, I hope my writing about him intrigues you enough to check him out and decide for yourself. And for those who aren't fans of Ben Harper, and I'm sure you are out there, I doubt this Ben Harper loveburst will change your minds. With some of the bands I like, I can usually see how others wouldn't be a fan. When it comes to Ben Harper though, I just don't see how you couldn't like him. His musical ability is outstanding, his voice is full of range and soul, and his lyrics are universal. If you aren't a fan of that, then what do you like?